Ward Blazing a Trail
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 11:01 AM
Pam Ward no longer gets nasty letters or ugly e-mails berating her for the occasional isolated mistake she might make in the course of a three and a half hour live college football telecast. She can laugh about the advice she once got from an agent back in 1990 telling her to forget about any notion of doing play-by-play on television and to focus instead on trying to become an off-camera producer.
It didn't even bother her when she walked into a pre-game production meeting last fall with Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who wondered if she was going to be doing sideline reporting during his team's game that weekend.
"He's got a lot more things on his mind than who's doing his game," Ward said the other day. "I didn't mind."
Of course, Ward was doing the play-by-play of the Nittany Lions' game the next day as part of her contract with ESPN to handle the network's noon package of Big 10 games on ESPN2. She's also been heavily involved in coverage of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, handling last weekend's regional games in Fresno as competently as she's always been in calling college football.
Play-by-play was always her goal, going back to when she was growing up in Mitchellville, Md., and tuning in the radio to Johnny Holliday, the voice of the University of Maryland, and Shelby Whitfield and Tony Roberts doing games of the old Washington Senators. She also loved to listen to Pat Summerall and Dick Enberg doing network pro football games, and always had it in her mind she might want to pursue the same profession.
But in a broadcasting specialty totally dominated by men, becoming a play-by-play announcer was far more easily dreamed than immediately do-able, so Pam Ward went about the business of paying her dues. After studying radio, television and film at Maryland, where she also served as a color analyst on Terrapin football games during the Boomer Esiason era, her first job in broadcasting was as a news reader at a small radio station in Cambridge, Md.
When the sports guy quit, she started doing play-by-play of local high school football games. From there, she moved to a television station in Salisbury -- "market No.162," she laughed -- as a weekend sportscaster, then on to a radio gig in Cleveland, doing sports on Tony Kornheiser's first radio show for WTEM in the early 1990s, her own overnight talk show on the station and sports during morning drive time on Baltimore's WBAL Radio.
When ESPNews came along to fill another cable channel with 24 hours of sports news in the mid-1990s, Ward was hired as a sports anchor, but insisted that her contract include a clause that would occasionally allow her to get out of the studio to do play-by-play, mostly covering women's sports. In 2000, she was so annoyed when ABC replaced veteran sideline reporter Lesley Visser with relatively inexperienced Melissa Stark (a much younger pretty face), she decided it was time to make a bold move herself.
"I was pretty fired up about that," she said, adding that she decided to go see ESPN executive John Walsh to see if she could start doing play-by-play on college football the next season. Walsh, the man many credit with adding serious journalism to the network's signature SportsCenter shows and one of the smartest deep-thinking visionaries in all of television, told her he was intrigued by the idea of a woman doing play-by-play and would get back to her.
Not long after that meeting, she was assigned three college games in the fall of 2000. The next year, she did nine games in the Mountain West conference, and in 2002 was promoted to the Big 10 package she's been handling was great aplomb and virtually no fanfare ever since with basically the same production crew. Last year, she was paired with former Pittsburgh head coach Mike Gottfried, the last of five different analysts she's been assigned, and the pairing seemed to click immediately.
Ward said that for the most part, she's been accepted as just another broadcaster by her male colleagues, as well as most of the players and coaches she's covered over the last six years.
"I've never heard anything overtly that anyone objected to me doing their games," she said. "The coaches have been very cool. Now, I see them every year, so it's no big deal. Sure, I got nasty letters and e-mails. Like everyone else, I'll make a mistake now and then, and people will write and say it's unnatural; it's crazy to have a woman doing the games. I used to let it bother me, but it really doesn't bother me. ESPN keeps bringing me back."
One of Ward's biggest fans is Mike Patrick, the network's veteran voice of college football and basketball who will handle the call this weekend for ESPN's coverage of the women's Final Four. He said he's delighted the network has given both Ward and Beth Mowen, a chance to do play-by-play at the network level, if only because both of them clearly earned the opportunity.
"I think because they're women, they both had to be better than most men just to get a shot at it, and especially Pam because she's doing football," he said. "By most people's perception, she'll always be criticized by some because she never played the game. So what? We all played sports at whatever level until they stopped us because we weren't good enough. Lack of talent in a sport is not lack of knowledge, and Pam has the knowledge.
"Unfortunately, there will probably always be people who will say 'oh, that's a woman, I'm not going to value her opinion.' But that's wrong. She works hard, she has a great personality, she's always prepared and she knows what she's talking about. Beth is the same. They're both so good, and they deserve to do anything they want to do. They're that good."
Ward considers Patrick a good friend and occasional sounding board. She's a tad jealous that he'll be doing the women's Final Four this weekend, an assignment she'd love to get at some point down the road. She's also always been a huge baseball fan and would like to get an opportunity to call games on radio or TV at the major league level, as well, something the new owners of the Washington Nationals would be wise to consider sooner rather than later.
Her current contract binds her exclusively to ESPN, but Ward said her agent, in the past, has sent feelers out to CBS and Fox about her doing pro football. So far there has been little or no interest, she said, and for now, "that's fine. I love doing college football."
Said Patrick, "someone will give her a shot. It's probably a long way away, for whatever reason, but when it happens, you just hope it's someone like Pam. She'd be terrific."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.